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Stratford's Olympicopolis: Hung, Drawn and Culturally Quartered

The structure of the present competition for Olympicopolis falls short of Victorian ideals

Among the more tiresome PR strategies employed by Britain’s government is its habit of hyping new initiatives through reference to the 19th century. The tendency might be more tolerable if such claims were not so wide of the mark. The mooted new Garden Cities look set to be car-reliant dormitory towns delivered by the private sector. Meanwhile, a competition is under way for a building on the Crystal Palace site. The project was framed as a reconstruction of Paxton’s masterpiece, funded by a Chinese philanthropist. Subsequently the goalposts shifted. What is being talked about now is a building ‘in the spirit of Paxton’s original’ which will house a substantial tranche of commercial space alongside public facilities of unspecified scale and nature.

The latest project to assume the garb of Victorian radicalism is a new arts and education quarter planned for the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park in east London. Incorporating a satellite of the V&A Museum, a new venue for the Sadler’s Wells theatre and a campus for the University of the Arts London, this £400million development has been dubbed Olympicopolis, in reference to Albertopolis, the cultural quarter established in Kensington during the 1850s at the behest of Albert, the Prince Regent.

The scheme is a response to the real need to consolidate the park as an integrated piece of London now that it has served its function of hosting the 2012 Olympic Games. Housing is being built around its perimeter but the ambition is that the site will serve as a destination for all Londoners and not just locals. Yet how sustainable these institutions will prove remains open to question. It is surprising, for example, to learn that at a time of swingeing cuts to the arts, the V&A is proposing yet another development on top of the expansion of its main site now being delivered by Amanda Levete and its new satellite in Dundee, by Kengo Kuma.

The speed at which the project is being put together is another worry. One might expect the procurement of such complex buildings for multiple clients on a 1.8ha site to be the subject of a staged process, allowing for the agreement of a masterplan in advance of competitions for individual buildings. Instead, all the design work has been rolled into a single contest − a decision rumoured to have been motivated by Boris Johnson’s desire to see the project under way before he completes his term as London’s Mayor in May 2016. Eligibility was dependent on architects being able to claim an annual turnover of £25m so it is no surprise that the shortlist is made up of consortia. How many designs this process can deliver that meet the ambitions of all three clients remains to be seen.

And the three headline organisations are not the only parties that the winning scheme has to satisfy. Their facilities constitute just over half of the proposed floor area, the rest taking the form of a retail and residential development delivered through a commercial joint venture. All this adds up to a very considerable density for a site that ostensibly belongs to a park. In fact it is hard to see what plausible configuration can be achieved other than extending a four-storey wall of buildings from end to end with towers emerging above. These commercial elements are essential to the viability of a project that will only get a third of its funding through central government but do they all really need to be crammed onto the same compact plot?

The project’s ambitions are laudable. It could be instrumental in ensuring that the 2012 Games leave a real legacy for one of London’s most deprived areas. However, the structure of the present competition raises serious doubts as to whether the outcome will prove a worthy successor to the Victorian model that its name so explicitly evokes.

Image

Boris Johnson follows the lead of ‘The Shipwrecked Ministers Saved by the Great Exhibition Steamer’, an 1851 cartoon from Punch

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